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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

15. Poetry of Liberation

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Activities: Author Activities

John Ashbery - Author Questions

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  1. Comprehension: Ashbery's poem "Illustration" could be read as a character sketch of the figure of the "novice." What happens to the "novice . . . sitting on a cornice"? Who is she? What does she symbolize? How does the title help us better understand the poem?

  2. Comprehension: How does Ashbery's interest in abstract painting influence his poetry?

  3. Comprehension: Like many of Ashbery's poems, "Soonest Mended" is inspired by a painting. What is the tone of "Soonest Mended"? Line 14 seems to mark a shift in the poem. What changes here? What is the speaker's "ambition"? What does he mean by this?

  4. Context: Ashbery is known for writing collage-like poems, a technique also practiced by many of the high modernists, including T. S. Eliot. Like Eliot, Ashbery writes in a range of registers, experimenting with what he calls "prose voices." Compare The Waste Land to "Soonest Mended," looking particularly at how these poets make transitions, link material, and jump between images and registers. What technical similarities and differences do you notice?

  5. Context: Ashbery peppers his poetry with scores of erudite allusions. In "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," for example, each page contains several footnotes explaining these references to readers. Why do you think he includes so many allusions? To whom or what does he allude? Can you make generalizations about these references? What does this tell us about his intended audience?

  6. Exploration: In Laocoön; an Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, Gotthold Lessing argues that the sister arts of poetry and painting achieve their effects through the nature of the medium (words, paint), and to succeed, each must exploit the potential of that medium while keeping in mind its limitations. Poetry, for example, works best when representing human action, but it lacks visual vividness. In contrast, painting best adapts to the representation of idealized human beauty in repose. Owing to the nontemporal character of words and paint, neither painting nor poetry easily represents the body in action. Only by selecting the "critical" or "fruitful" moment, which simultaneously preserves physical beauty and concentrates within itself the suggestion of past and future action, can the painter or poet even indirectly represent a sequence of events in action. How does Ashbery's poetry reflect this struggle and the desire to blend media? You might consider "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" in particular.

  7. Exploration: Ashbery's poetry has been described as meditative because he rarely describes events or people; instead he is interested in representing the inner workings of the mind, especially as involved in the creative process. Like his modernist predecessors, Auden and particularly Stevens, Ashbery struggles with the problem of representing a reality that can never be truly grasped. As critic David Perkins notes, Ashbery, like Stevens, writes about the "mind forming hypotheses about reality in general, about the ultimate truth of nature of things." While Stevens tried to represent the "supreme fiction," however, Ashbery finds it futile to seek order or structure in reality. Despite this seemingly cynical and hopeless outlook, however, Ashbery's poetry is usually positive and curious, upbeat and hopeful. Look at the surrealist paintings in the Web archive. How do these paintings compare to Ashbery's poetry? How do these visual images influence the way you read his work?

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